By Martin Bernheimer
It happens all the time. A famous, beloved artist falls ill (or, as is sometimes the unpleasant case, gets what may be regarded as a better offer). It even happens at Ravinia. A famous, beloved artist cancels, and management scrambles for an appropriate replacement.
Some cases become memorable, star-making events. Other cases are quickly, even mercifully, forgotten.
The classic, genuinely historic takeover triumph in reasonably recent memory involved the august New York Philharmonic back in 1943. The giant on the podium that day was supposed to be the great, much-revered, quintessentially European Bruno Walter. Thoughtlessly and unfortunately, he came down with the flu. Standing in the wings, however, baton and ego at the ready, was a brash 25-year-old quasi-wunderkind from Lawrence, MA, who had recently been appointed the orchestra’s assistant conductor. His name: Leonard Bernstein.
The scheduled program included thorny challenges by such disparities as Schumann, Miklós Rózsa, Wagner, and Richard Strauss. To say that young “ersatz” maestro ran with the challenge would be a grotesque understatement. Until his death in 1990, he conquered many worlds—some critics thought too many for total aesthetic comfort—as not just a conductor but also a composer, author, lecturer, TV personality, and pianist.
No American before him achieved comparable, widespread international acclaim. The esteemed New York Times critic Donal Henahan, not known as an easily pleased observer of the scene, labeled Bernstein “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.”
Bernstein’s only official preparation for this debut involved a brief meeting with Walter, who shared his thoughts on the particular difficulties that might materialize with the works on the agenda. The New York Times, not incidentally, covered Bernstein’s almost spontaneous emergence in a breathless article on page one. “It’s a good American success story,” it reported. “The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread over the air waves.” In those lovely days, the orchestra’s domestic concerts were broadcast nationally.
Ravinia has enjoyed its share of dramatic surprises. In 1971, Eugene Ormandy was scheduled to bring some of his old-school Philadelphia luster to Highland Park. After he was forced to cancel, the management turned to a promising newcomer in residence, the Hungarian maestro István Kertész. When he too got sick, in came James Levine, fresh from apprenticeship with the Cleveland Orchestra. The central repertory item on that occasion was Mahler’s mighty “Resurrection” Symphony. Everyone on both sides of the proscenium was suitably nervous, but also ultimately floored.
Within two years, Levine was named Ravinia’s music director. During his tenure, which ended in 1993, he enlivened numerous chamber-music and opera endeavors. He also played the piano when he wasn’t concentrating on strict symphonic duties. International success loomed. Wagner’s festival in Bayreuth, Germany, soon beckoned. Foremost, of course, he became a beloved, uniquely busy, virtually perpetual fixture at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera— a post that he relinquished earlier this year after 40 years.
Comparably memorable, without doubt, was the unplanned Ravinia debut in 1999 of a 17-year-old piano virtuoso— and perhaps equally virtuosic showman—from China bearing a seemingly repetitious name, Lang Lang. He was filling in for an ailing all-American, André Watts, who himself had earned something of a reputation as a last-minute substitute par excellence at nearly the same age, playing in place of Glenn Gould.
[On August 2, Ravinia hosted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut of Gustavo Gimeno, who has been making a spate of major debuts. Previously principal percussionist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for over a decade and then its assistant conductor in 2012, in 2014 he substituted for the ensemble’s venerable maestro, Mariss Jansons, and just a few months later he also stood in for Lorin Maazel with the Munich Philharmonic, launching what has become a whirlwind international career.]
In many instances, the most notable, or at least best publicized, musical substitutions take place in the irrational yet wondrous world of opera. It is a relatively easy thing for one pianist to replace another. All he or she needs to do is to know the score or, in some cases, read it. Opera, however, is theater. Replacements must know the staging, and it helps if they know their colleagues. They also must appear in appropriate costumes and wigs. With luck, they should have time for the application of appropriate makeup. They must coexist with the rest of the cast, the chorus, and the orchestra. The experience can be unnerving for all concerned. But that’s hardly a new development.
In April 1884, the mighty Met, finally settled at its new, then-lavish home at 39th Street and Broadway, planned a performance of Bizet’s Carmen. It was not to be. For once, the house remained dark.
The anonymous critic for the New York Times reported the event—more precisely, non-event—under a headline citing the company’s harried general manager: “MR. ABBEY AT HIS WIT’S END.” This was the ultra-complicated, vaguely mysterious reportage:
The opera of Carmen, which was announced for the final performance of Mr. [Henry] Abbey’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House yesterday afternoon, was not given, and the house was closed, their money being returned to those who had purchased seats in advance. On Friday Mme. [Zelia] Trebelli was suffering from a severe cold, but she was so anxious not to disappoint the public that she sang on that evening. Yesterday morning her cold had developed to such an extent that she found it would be impossible to sing in the afternoon, and she at once notified Mr. Abbey. There was but one way out of the difficulty, and that was for Mlle. Louisa Lablache to sing Carmen, but she had already sent word that she was too ill to appear, and her mother had volunteered to sing Mercedes in her place. Under these circumstances the idea of producing Carmen had to be abandoned, as Mme. [Marcella] Sembrich had been ill all the week with a severe cold, Mme. [Christina] Nilsson was but just recovering from a fever, and Mme. [Alwina] Valleria had sailed for Europe.
There was but one resource in this emergency, and that was the substitution of an opera in which the star should be a contralto, and to arrange for this in time, the assistance of Mme. [Sofia] Scalchi was indispensable. Mr. Abbey decided to give Le Prophéte and Signor [Roberto] Stagno was notified and consented to sing. Mme. Scalchi was sent for, but she returned word that it was impossible to sing, as she had not had her breakfast early enough. Mr. [J.H.] Copleston visited her at her hotel, and tried to induce her to sing by representing to her that Mr. Abbey was under contract to give 60 performances, and that unless she came to his aid he would be obliged to break his contract, but she was inflexible. Mr. Copleston says that her husband, Count Lolli, when Mr. Abbey’s predicament was alluded to, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Everybody for himself.’ Mme. Scalchi was finally induced to go to the opera house, and she volunteered to sing any role which was not so heavy as Fides, suggesting that a concert be given, or certain portions of other operas. Mr. Abbey refused to entertain this suggestion, stating that he would not end his season with a mutilated performance. Signor [Italo] Campanini, although he was too unwell to sing in the Stabat Mater on Friday night, and nearly every one of the leading artists of the company came forward with offers of assistance in the emergency, but as it became evident that no satisfactory performance could be given, Mr. Abbey decided to close the house. The advance sale of tickets had not been very great, but there was a great rush of people at the doors, and the indications were that the house would have been well filled.”
Sometimes, apparently contrary to theatrical tradition, the show must not go on.
But sometimes it does goes on, despite tribulation, with unexpected delight. Roberta Peters, it may be recalled, became an overnight sensation back in 1950 when, virtually unknown, she made her debut replacing Nadine Conner shortly before the curtain rose on a Don Giovanni at the Met.
And then there was the curious case of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. The composer wrote the sentimental neo-Romantic extravaganza for Maria Callas, who ultimately showed no interest. Barber then turned to the great Vienna Opera diva Sena Jurinac, who reportedly rejected the opportunity after careful study. Ultimately, the complex heroine became the property of the versatile American soprano Eleanor Steber, who enjoyed a huge success with it in conservative New York, but less success, alas, in progressive Salzburg (everything of course is relative).
Comparable off-again–on-again endeavors have dotted the Met’s history with some regularity. Most memorable, relatively contemporary examples have involved such adventures as the temporary yet angry departure of Callas when challenged by the stubborn impresario Rudolf Bing; the selective and ever-changing repertory choices of the super-coloratura from Australia, Joan Sutherland; the egocentric/eccentric casting swings of tenor Roberto Alagna; and, just last season, the late withdrawal of the tenoral heartthrob du jour, Jonas Kaufmann.
Personnel vicissitudes are inescapable in the life of a music lover; especially in opera. Sic transit gloria and all that.
Martin Bernheimer won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while at the Los Angeles Times. He now covers music in New York for the Financial Times.